I am an incurable collector. Shells on the beach. Old shoes. Gourds. Bird’s nests. Beads. Broken glass. Barbie dolls. Feathers. Wisteria seeds. Pottery shards from a wrecked ship. A porcelain doll from a flea market.
And what do I do with my treasures?
Mostly I make mirrors.
The mirror on my blog page was made from white shells, mostly collected on Lord Howe Island, a dot of sub-tropical paradise in the Pacific, one of my most favourite places in the world. If I could live there, I would. Maybe one day.
Scallop shells make great mirror frames but after using them again and again, I’m now a bit bored by them. This coloured glass mirror is one of my mistakes. Even half-finished, it will be too heavy to hang but the colours are exquisite and the glass shapes unique so it sits on my workbench gathering dusk.
At the moment I’m making the mirror shown on last week’s post, using frilly blue shells that were dumped on the shore when my local Council dredged sand in our bay: I suspect they’ve turned blue because they’ve been buried in mud.
So what is it about mirrors and me?
Recently I stayed in a hotel room where there was no full length mirror. I might well have been grateful for this because these days I often see my mother in shop windows instead of myself.
It is always a shock to be confronted by my own ageing. The ‘face’ I wear is a stranger’s face and it hides everything about me—my childhood and girlhood, my mothering years, my worldly achievements—I am an ageing woman who looks like her mother, and yet I am so much more than this.
That night in the hotel, getting ready to meet friends whom I hadn’t seen for several years, I found myself precariously balanced on a chair trying to get a full length view of myself in the mirror above the bathroom vanity.
Was it just vanity? Even narcissism? Is that me? Fixated on myself and my physical appearance? And increasingly, my ageing?
I suspect it is more complex than this.
After birth, mothers rely on their eyes to mirror emotions to their babies. Babies rely on their mother’s eyes to mirror emotion to them. Some schools of psychiatry suggest the effectiveness of this early mirroring contributes to the formation of a healthy ego.
Others believe every person we meet is simply a mirror reflecting our beliefs and perceptions back to us, and that if we can bear to be honest with ourselves and look beyond the surface image, others can become a useful mirror for growth. Or not.
In ‘A Room of One’s Own’, Virginia Woolf named the repression of women as the essential mirror for male supremacy:
“Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”
Hence the quote in my blog title, ‘The Essential Mirror’:
“Whatever may be their use in civilised societies, mirrors are essential to all violent and heroic action. That is why Napoleon and Mussolini both insist so emphatically upon the inferiority of women, for if they were not inferior, they would cease to enlarge. That serves to explain in part the necessity that women so often are to men.”
As a child of the fifties and young woman of the sixties, I have been blessed to see myself in the mirrors of Woolf and Greer, Friedan, Steinem and others, yet I have been so conditioned by the mirrors of men that I still struggle to reverse the image to enlarge my own potential.
In May 2000, I marched across Sydney Harbour Bridge with more than 250,000 others in support of reconciliation. The march was a way of sending a message to John Howard, who was then Australian Prime Minister, to say ‘Sorry’ to the stolen generations and all those affected by former policies of removing Aboriginal children from their families.
It was a beautiful day with a high blue sky that was soon filled with huge white letters spelling out the word S-O-R-R-Y. Every nationality and blending of nationhood walked side by side: I felt both immensely proud to be part of our relatively new multi-cultural country, and terribly ashamed of how we had dispossessed its original inhabitants.
I took photographs to record my experience. Yet, curiously, because I was part of that immense crowd I had no idea how we looked crossing the bridge together. I couldn’t wait to get back to my hotel room to watch the television news in order to see myself in the electronic ‘mirror’ of our times.
(In 2007 the Howard government was voted out of office and the first official act of the new parliament was an official apology to the Stolen Generations by Prime Minster, Kevin Rudd.)
And now, with Smartphones, we have the cult of the ‘selfie’ which is easy to dismiss as the ultimate indulgence of the iGeneration but perhaps it, too, is more than it seems.
Novelist, Edith Wharton, said: ‘There are two ways of spreading light: to be the candle or the mirror that reflects it.’
Perhaps we are all desperate to find our own power and potential–our own light–in the many mirrors of our lives.
Perhaps I make mirrors to reflect that light.